As the Centre withers away

India’s federal structure provides for power to the Central Government for some major decisions and autonomy for States on many others. But we are now witness to the sad and sadistic situation of a Central Government running away from its responsibilities, while the hapless States are left in the lurch. And there is this sorry spectacle of States pitted against one another, a spoof on One India.

Technically, according to our Constitution, Health is a State subject. But Covid is a challenge to this particular provision of our guiding Law. The disease does not respect State borders, or for that matter, even national boundaries. The whole world is at war with it, as it comes in wave after wave. Covid has overturned every aspect of modern life and set new priorities or rather just one priority – itself. All countries, including India, have risen as one and that is welcome. But what is unseemly is the sight of States haggling with a Centre that has quietly abdicated.

Last year, when the first wave struck (our leaders were sure it was also the last wave), the PM came on TV and declared a lockdown giving the people a notice of four hours, that is, up to that midnight. It was India on the move overnight and shut shop very next day, a nation stranded, unlike other sensible countries that gave some leeway for their citizens to prepare. Modi then declared that the disease would be defeated in 21 days. He asked people, including our First Citizen, to come out and light candles, so that coward Covid would get the message …or else. After more than a year, several 21 days later, it is not candle but countless funeral pyres that are singeing India. Again, typically last year, all citizens, and yes, including the First One, were exhorted to beat and bang metal plates, to beat the s…t out of Covid. But today, relatives of numerous dead and sick are beating their breasts in grief and anger.

This time around the master of propaganda and his pets have their backs to the wall. The man on the street, ambulances and hospitals, the States, the media, within and without, and experts from across the globe have risen as one to deliver a stinging statement that the Central Government has completely goofed up. They have placed the deaths and rise in infections at the doorstep of Modi’s regime. A vicious combination of arrogance and ignorance; callousness overriding compassion; Bengal becoming bigger than the rest of India; untimely elections. The list is endless. It would be a lasting slur and shame on Covid if it fails to accept this invite and hospitality.

But the long and short of the story is that having caused irreparable damage, the Centre has scooted. Whatever good, albeit little, has happened is at the behest of the Courts. The States no longer approach the Centre for Oxygen. For what they get, if an opposition party like AAP, is raw politicking. The SC has set up a task force to oversee the distribution of Oxygen. And many States have got justice, which of course, given the demand, at best is just a ‘bail’ out. An uneasy Centre owing to lack of transparency and fear of scrutiny of its misdeeds, dubs this judicial outreach as overreach. But whatever, the fact is from SC to many HCs, the Judges are ‘ruling’.

But the biggest bungle is w.r.t to vaccines. This is a number game that no one understands. But suffice to say that by current trends the inoculation ‘drive’ is likely to stretch to year-end or even spill over to 2022. The jabs are indeed becoming a real pain. Given only two producers with limited capacity, it was obvious from the beginning that the vaccine flow would be inadequate even by first wave standards. While the rest of the world was tying up and gobbling all available vaccines, this pharmacy of the world remained in deep slumber, having declared that Covid has been conquered.

Result? Huge shortages of vaccines with every State crying themselves hoarse unable to vaccinate and arrest the rising numbers. The rampant confusion over pricing has only made matters worse. Originally, the vaccines were meant for 45-70 age group. There was an opposition led outcry to start from age 18 and the Central Government yielded, setting a starting date of May 1. Within days, most States declared they cannot meet the deadline as the 45 plus themselves remain sans jabs. The focus has also to be shifted to the important second jab or otherwise the purpose fails. And now comes the spin that the second could be given even after 8 or 12 weeks later: And now those who took the second dose in four weeks as originally prescribed are clearly confused.

And now the Centre has cleverly put the onus on the States, washing its own hands off. It has asked them to float global tenders as per their requirements and pay for them. Some States may have the administrative and financial wherewithal, but what about a wretched land like Bihar or the lost and lonely six sisters in the North East, where Covid is rising? Clearly, the sinister suggestion is that Covid is not a national disaster, but a State subject. Whither Centre?

There must have been a national lockdown, given figures of 3.5 lakhs daily. But States were made to bear the blame and brunt for ‘localised lockdowns’. Had the Central Government itself done the shutdown, it would have had to provide national level reliefs. Aah, better to scramble up the tree and be a safe spectator than be stampeded by sick, seething masses!

But all of the above are no alibi for inaction and indifference on the Centre’s part. These are extraordinary circumstances warranting similar solutions. All the brains are not the monopoly of the ruling party. On the contrary, the Health Minister of the country is a bumbler par excellence even in normal times.

Already, The Indian Medical Association’s prescription for national lockdown was rejected. The suggestions of Manmohan Singh were mocked. The fate of many genuine experts was similar. Instead of playing deaf, the Government should take all knowledgeable people along. Indeed this is the perfect time for all good men to come to the aid of the party, read, country.

At least temporarily, what we need is a national Government, not a nationalist Government.

Jawahar T R